Associated Press journalists covering the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines are now living and working in two locations – the meeting room in a hotel that was largely destroyed and a spot at Tacloban’s seaside airport enclosed by a large party tent.
Ten days after the devastating storm blew through, Manila-based AP reporter Jim Gomez recounts the scene that he and colleagues first encountered:
Covering the horrific death and devastation wrought by Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban, a lively central Philippine city of more than 200,000 people on Leyte island, southeast of Manila, was like reporting in a war zone.
Power, transport, fuel, food, water and telephones were snuffed out by one of the most ferocious storms on record.
In knocking out all forms of communications, Haiyan prevented news of the massive death toll and devastation from rapidly filtering out beyond the island. There was a fleeting mention by a Manila aviation official of Tacloban’s airport being ruined by storm surges. The government put the overall death toll in the central Philippines at 3 or 4. Media outfits began speculating how the country was spared from serious damage despite the monster storm’s deadly profile.
However, the next morning, when the same aviation official told news organizations that at least 100 people perished in Tacloban alone, AP staffers sprang into action. Video journalist Kiko Rosario and his assistant, Vicente Gonzales; photographers Bullit Marquez and Aaron Favila and I rushed to the Villamor Air Base in Manila, where air force C-130 aircraft were taking off to transport the first disaster-response teams and food packs to the battered city. Favila got to Villamor first, quickly looked for the manifest and listed our names – a crucial action since throngs of foreign and local journalists would converge later at the air base to fight for about a dozen seats allotted to media. All commercial flights were suspended.
After landing at Tacloban’s ruined airport, Kiko, Bullit and Aaron quickly spread out to capture the first images of the devastation as night approached. They climbed to the top of the airport tower – its glass shattered – and took in flattened and devastated villages as far as their eyes could see.
The airport parking lot was a muddy wasteland of upturned cars, cargo trolleys, aviation equipment and jagged tin roofs. Walking just a few blocks away, we saw bodies on roadsides, covered by tin roofs, sodden bedsheets and pieces of wood. Stunned survivors huddled together on sidewalks near corpses, covering their noses. They asked for food and water but we had none.
One lady said she was given biscuits by friends but would not eat them because she had no water. Beyond the road, she pointed to a clearing that I thought was a barren farm but turned out to be a crowded coastal village, where her house once stood, until a wall of water surged from the sea the morning the typhoon hit and swept away everything.
We set up a makeshift office outside a low-slung, damaged building, where a few airport controllers and army troops temporarily operated. The building attracted journalists because it was the only structure in the entire airport with a light bulb on. A diesel generator supplied power. Connecting to the power line, the AP team sent out the first images and stories through laptops hooked to satellite phones.
Dinner was a piece of salty cracker topped with a small slice of sardines, courtesy of fellow journalists from another news outfit. Bed for me was a white plastic chair, in which I tried to sleep. The stench of bodies stacked in a nearby chapel kept me awake all night.
Without car, fuel and information – the city government had virtually collapsed – it was hard to plan the next day’s coverage. Photographers hiked several kilometers to town and hard-hit villages. Coordinating the movement of AP staff became a challenge without functioning telephones, so staffers were basically on their own, incommunicado, once they left our airport base. Many survivors later found their way through the airport’s broken perimeter fences and wandered near our workplaces, later competing for sleeping spaces.
There was no meal at all on the second day. Some air force personnel handed us a couple of water bottles and later allowed us to use a hand-operated water pump that was dangerously located in the middle of a heap of sharp tin debris and rocks. We washed ourselves there.
The hardest moments were interviewing the survivors, who were visibly traumatized. Many had missing loved ones, or they were struggling to care for injured or sick relatives and wanted to escape Tacloban but couldn’t. Most of the survivors I interviewed had not had a meal for days. Many waited in long lines outside the airport, hoping to get a flight out on military relief aircraft.
Once, while reading my notes to my colleague Todd Pitman, who was typing them in his laptop for transmission later to the Manila desk. I got overwhelmed and could not go on when I was describing how a father was embracing his kids and wife during a downpour on the tarmac. Huddled close together, I saw that they were all crying quietly. The wife and kids were to board a C-130 shortly and the father decided to stay home to guard their damaged home.
At another time we were interviewing a woman, who was with her children and other relatives. They had waited with the huge crowd for days but could not get seats in one of the outbound military planes amid the bedlam. She worried for her family and begged us for help, tears streaming down her face.